Scandal and the need for moral courage

Another week, another dose of scandals for the media to gorge over and with today’s resignation of Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, it’s just become a field day.

Although the press loves a good scandal, as can be seen by the column inches devoted to the Lib Dems’ former chief executive, Lord Rennard and Cardinal O’Brien,  is it possible as readers and viewers that we have become rather blasé about this sort of thing?  Scandals involving sex in one form or another have become so commonplace that despite them providing the opportunity for plenty of gossip to be shared round the water cooler, it takes something of the horrendous proportions of the Jimmy Savile case to truly shock us now.  Even as I write this post, Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation is being read less on the BBC website than a story about cold chips in school lunchboxes.  Though we’re still waiting to see how much truth there is, if any, concerning the allegations against Lord Rennard and Cardinal O’Brien, if some of them do turn out to be true, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time this sort of thing has happened – not by a long way.

There are various thoughts that are going through my mind regarding these stories and I don’t want to try to address them all in a single post.  One that’s been occupying my mind for the last few days before today’s developments is why so often when we hear these allegations, we subsequently find that it’s taken years for the stories to come out and that often as with the case of Lord Rennard and what Nick Clegg may or may not have known, there are people who had suspicions or actually knew that something was going on, but failed to act.  As Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat Party President said this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme, “The one thing I probably can tell you without going through due process is that we screwed this up as a party.  There are individuals out there who we had a duty of care towards and we did not fulfil that duty of care. That is something that we have to learn from, apologise for and make sure it never happens again.”

It’s the same depressing story of people not acting on what they hear or know, or the processes that are designed to stop abuse not being followed.  It’s even worse when you hear stories, as has happened with the recent NHS stories of whistleblowers either being gagged to avoid failings coming to light or becoming the targets of abuse themselves for speaking out.  The Lord Rennard example appears to be pretty minor compared to the disastrous failings and conspiracy of silence at the BBC with Savile, or at Stafford hospital, but what we see time and again in these cases is a complete lack of moral courage from those who could have done something about what they knew.  When those in the know fail to speak out, act accordingly or even deliberately hinder justice in order to save their own skins or hide their own or their institution’s failings, the suffering that has already been caused is intensified.  When those who try to expose abuse are suppressed or vilified then it reveals how morally corrupt those who are in charge with power and control have become .

The 18th century philosopher, Edmund Burke is attributed to have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

When we know that wrong is being done, we morally have a duty to stand up against it, even if there may be a personal cost.  Sometimes that cost is too much for some to bear, but as a society do we have the guts to honour the brave who are willing to risk personal humiliation or worse for the sake of justice?  Last weekend Jews around the world celebrated Purim, the festival that remembers the heroics of Esther who risked her life defending the Jews in the Persian empire when they faced slaughter.  It was only her effective whistleblowing that exposed the corrupt plans of Haman, one of the King’s high-ranking officials.  Esther as the wife of the king could have stayed silent, but she knew that she had to do what was right and as a result of her actions she has been celebrated ever since as one of the great figures of the Jewish faith.

As long as there are individuals who either have lapses in moral judgement or deliberately choose to do wrong, scandals will keep coming.  They have been around as long as humanity has and will continue indefinitely.  We can’t change that, but we can choose how we respond when allegations are made and secrets are revealed.  Too often those who should know better, including those who have been the perpetrators, reveal they lack the courage to do the right thing and every time this happens the potential for more pain and humiliation further down  the line increases.  The Liberal Democrats could potentially lose Thursday’s by-election as a result of the way they handled complaints against Lord Rennard and the Catholic Church now faces all sorts of turmoil as  it deals with the fallout of Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation.  So often it doesn’t have to turn out this way, but as long as moral courage is in short supply, we will continue to see the devastating consequences of it again and again.

‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.’  (John 3:19-21)

Categories: Integrity, Justice, Morals & ethics, Party politics

Tags: , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. The real scandal about Cardinal O’Brien is how the Pope fired him just before the election of his successor, just days after O’Brien questioned clerical celibacy. A clear case of election rigging. And as the BBC report (but not the headline) clarifies, the Pope brought forward O’Brien’s resignation a week ago and so before the sex scandal broke. It looks to me like a case of baseless allegations published as a smokescreen to cover up the real reason for firing the Cardinal.

    • To be fair, O’Brien’s interview mentioning clerical celibacy was also less than a week ago. But there are various timings and other elements in the story which don’t quite tie up. I suspect a dirty tricks department doing things in the Pope’s name, as I’m sure Benedict isn’t spending his last few days in office on such matters.

      • Thank you Peter. I don’t think the Lord Rennard and Cardinal O’Brien cases are comparable, even though I may have given that impression in my post. I agree the timing are suspicious. I was thinking there was too much politics when it came to the C of E women bishops vote, but I would imagine it’s minor compared to the election of a new Pope. I do genuinely hope that the truth comes out for Cardinal O’Brien and that we’re not left with a cover-up or with questions to answer. The Roman Catholic Church needs to show it can handle this sort of thing in an appropriate way if it’s not going to lose further trust in it.


  1. Pope did not ask Keith O’Brien to stand down, says English cardinal | Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans
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